Mon, Feb 18, 2019 - Page 7 News List

US intelligence leaders believe Russia and China are getting closer

By Hal Brands  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Substance often runs a distant second to drama in the age of US President Donald Trump. So it was when the US’ intelligence chiefs visited Washington’s Capitol Hill recently to deliver their agencies’ annual worldwide threat assessment. It got traction in the news media largely because US National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel gave testimony that implicitly cut across Trump’s policies toward North Korea and Iran.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has no intention of giving up is nuclear weapons, Coats and Haspel testified, whereas Iran might like to have them, but does not currently build them.

Coats’ testimony, in turn, triggered a predictable Twitter meltdown from Trump, who admonished his own intelligence officials to “go back to School.”

Largely lost in this controversy were the most interesting aspects of the intelligence officials’ assessment, which shed light on three trends that could seriously alter the global landscape for the worse.

The first involves the ever-closer relationship between China and Russia. The US’ relationships with Beijing and Moscow have been deteriorating for years and the threat assessment provides a window into the intelligence community’s thinking on both.

Russia is a declining, but aggressive actor that is likely to intensify its election meddling and information warfare against the US and other democracies. China is not simply a revisionist power, but is pursuing “a long-term strategy to achieve global superiority.”

However, just as notable is what the assessment has to say about the ties between the US’ authoritarian challengers: “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.”

They will likely become even closer because of their shared opposition to democratic values and US global leadership.

Russia and China are now cooperating on military exercises and arms sales, energy deals and economic ties, efforts to weaken international norms surrounding human rights and many other fronts. This cooperation better enables each country to challenge the US.

China, for instance, has improved its anti-access/area denial military capabilities by buying (and, in some cases, copying) Russian military technology. Even where Russia and China are not cooperating directly — such as in supporting authoritarian regimes and undermining democratic governance abroad — their efforts have mutually reinforcing effects.

Granted, an earlier Moscow-Beijing axis broke up in the 1960s, and there are probably limits on how well today’s relationship will work over the long term. If China really is bent on global superiority, Russia will face an aggressive behemoth on its borders.

However, in the medium term, the US confronts a quasi-alliance between its two chief competitors, one that heightens the difficulties of dealing with either.

The second trend involves US alliances.

The first page of Coats’ prepared statement offers a warning: “Some US allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing US policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships.”

The wording is a bit oblique, but this single sentence captures a collection of anxieties that are testing the US’ geopolitical coalitions.

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